Jupiter’s got acne!

By Phil Plait | May 22, 2008 10:21 am

Poor Jupiter. It’s breaking out*.

The Great Red Spot is a vast, planet-sized hurricane that’s been blowing on Jupiter for hundreds of years. In 2006 it was joined by a smaller storm — though still thousands of miles across — called Oval BA (no relation).

And now a third red spot has popped up!

The third storm (the smaller one in the middle left on the Hubble picture above) was a more normal whitish oval up until recently, when it suddenly turned red. It’s unclear why; in general the colors of the storms indicate their chemical composition, and red usually means complex organic compounds. Maybe they were dredged up from deep beneath Jupiter’s cloud tops, or maybe the storm gained altitude, high enough that incoming solar ultraviolet light was able to reassemble the molecules into new ones that are red (that’s called photolysis, for those keeping track at home). That last idea is supported by the idea that the storm is bright in infrared — usually, methane in Jupiter’s atmosphere absorbs infrared light, so the only way a storm can be bright in IR is for it to rise above most of the methane in the air.

That means that if you could see this from the side, it would look like a bump, or a welt, or, well, a pimple rising above the face of Jupiter. But don’t be fooled: if transported to Earth, even that small spot would cover most of a hemisphere.

Jupiter is monstrously big.

It’s also a mess. All we can see of Jupiter is the top layers of its atmosphere; but the atmosphere goes down thousands and thousands of kilometers. As the pressure increases with depth the gas turns slowly into liquid; there is no boundary where you can say "here be surface".

The tops of the clouds we see are incredibly dynamic. Jupiter spins more than twice as fast as the Earth, and is 11 times the diameter, so the Coriolis effect – which powers the spin of hurricanes on Earth — is hugely more effective on Jupiter. Also, unlike the Earth which gets most of its heat from the Sun, Jupiter is very warm inside, and so the atmosphere is heated both from above and from below.

This makes, obviously, for a messy, messy, world. Understanding Jupiter’s complex dynamics will keep atmospheric scientists employed for centuries… probably sponsored by Clearasil.



*What’s next? Blackheads?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, NASA, Science, Space

Comments (33)

  1. This is clearly because of global warming on Earth, right? Yet another negative externality, much like the supernova that was witnessed the other day?

    The end times, they are a coming, I tell you.

    More seriously, any chance the big red spot storm will come to an end in any of our lifetimes? Or is the Coriolis effect simply too strong? Why doesn’t it grow, then? Has it found a nice, healthy, perpetuating equilibrium?

    Nice blog and keep up the good work!

  2. Thethyme

    Is there any way to tell if or when the storms will end? Why does the red stop hurricane continue for centuries, why doesn’t the storm dissipate at some point? Just curious

  3. Shoeshine Boy

    “As the pressure increases with depth the gas turns slowly into liquid”

    How totally alien to our Earthly experience.

  4. Richard Wolford

    Aw, these guys grow up so fast. Before long Jupiter will be dating before going off to college and getting a job.

    Seriously, this is a really cool post, How anyone can be opposed to science is simply beyond me.

  5. You have brought on a question, BA, that will consume your very mind for entire minutes!

    If the Coriolis effect is so much stronger on Jupiter than on Earth, would it have an effect on a small, short-lived vortex like, say, a toilet flushing?

  6. Gnat

    I know that the term “hurricane” is used, but could the new spot be more like a tornado? I realize the all the spots are mind-numbingly large, but is that the only reason “hurricane” is used? Tornados are more like vacuum cleaners…dredging up from the bottom…sorta.

    And I want to know that answer to Carey’s questions too!

  7. Todd W.

    Any likelihood that the two smaller storms could merge with the Big Red Spot ™?

  8. OMG! We’ve been having Measles outbreaks in Southern Arizona, and now it’s spread to JUPITER!?
    ;)

    J/P=?

  9. Todd W.

    @J/P=?

    The anti-vax movement has more power than I thought!

  10. SkepticTim

    It is interesting to note that both the great red spot, and the little red spot spin anticyclonicaly, opposite to the circulation of hurricanes, tornadoes and other violent storms on earth. I wonder if this new spot is also an anticyclone.
    Also, the great red spot is observed to be slowly fading while the little red spot is growing in strength: is it significant that all of the new spots are forming in the same region as the old spot: (perhaps replacing it)? What, I wonder, is causing these vortices to form in this particular location: some deep energy source perhaps?

  11. James H.

    I remember a presentation (NOVA perhaps?) a few years ago where several scientists were attempting to generate a computer model of Jupiter’s complex system, and after a while they succeded in forming large cyclonic storms just like you see on Jupiter and sometimes on the other gas planets as well. I wish I could remember the name of that now, but I’m getting old….and getting spots too…I’ll try and looking it up and post it here.

  12. Have a look at this Jupiter movie a German amateur astronomer took in late April with a methane-band filter: All three storms are clearly visible! A Berkeley/Keck press release actually hails the contributions of amateur astronomers whose work nicely augments Hubble and Keck.

  13. Greg23

    Jupiter’s bands are so artistically beautiful (sorry Carolyn/Saturn).

    I have a new screensaver.

  14. wright

    If blackheads start popping out of Jupiter, does that mean Velikovsky was right??

  15. Sili

    Is that a vortex street?

    Absolutely beautiful either way.

  16. Todd W.
    The anti-vax movement has more power than I thought!

    This just in: NASA and the CDC have started a joint mission to vaccinate planets!
    ;)

    J/P=?

  17. So are you suggesting that Jupiter is going through puberty?

  18. Thomas Siefert

    Looks like an English breakfast.

  19. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    What, I wonder, is causing these vortices to form in this particular location: some deep energy source perhaps?

    Or an effect of the first disturbance affecting its environment? It comes down to understanding their dynamics.

  20. Jeffersonian

    I just loved reading this post. Never get tired of the J-man, ju-pit-tair!

  21. CR

    Oval BA passed the GRS at least once that I read about, and neither merged with the other, but they are at differenet latitudes. This new spot appears to be aligned with the GRS. Are they converging? And if so, might they merge?

  22. sprocket

    It’s not acne. It’s just that the old red spot has had a couple of kids. Life on Jupiter staring us in the face?

  23. Geomancer

    “It’s unclear why; in general the colors of the storms indicate their chemical composition, and red usually means complex organic compounds. Maybe they were dredged up from deep beneath Jupiter’s cloud tops, or maybe the storm gained altitude, high enough that incoming solar ultraviolet light was able to reassemble the molecules into new ones that are red (that’s called photolysis, for those keeping track at home). That last idea is supported by the idea that the storm is bright in infrared — usually, methane in Jupiter’s atmosphere absorbs infrared light, so the only way a storm can be bright in IR is for it to rise above most of the methane in the air.”

    Forgive me my ignorance, but I was unaware that any “organic” compounds had been well documented elsewhere in the Solar system… Am I simply out of touch (a real possibility since my focus is on systems on Earth, not elsewhere), or is your definition of ‘organic’ different from mine (which is something akin to “produced by an organism”). I realize that non-biogenic systems can yield biogenic-seeming isotopic signals (take a peek at iron isotopes, for example), and that complex hydrocarbons can arise through abiogenic means, but…I don’t think that’s quite the same thing.

    I guess the short version is “organic” implies a biogenic origin, at least in some disciplines…so how, exactly, are you defining it?

    (thanks in advance, and sorry to be a stickler, but I’ve found that many scientific fields use words in a slightly different manner, and “organic” is one that I think needs to be well defined in any context)

  24. Is it just me, or does the Great Red Spot now look like a nipple?

    Fair enough, I thought. As we recently had a Thingy on Mars.

  25. andy

    Geomancer: “organic” refers to any molecule containing both carbon and hydrogen, which is the typical usage in chemistry I think. The name dates back from when it was thought that organic compounds could only be synthesised by living organisms through some kind of “life force”. This theory has been proven false, but the name remains.

    (Some sources relax the hydrogen requirement, but graphite and diamond are NOT usually treated as organic compounds, nor are carbonates)

  26. Excellent explanation, Phil, as always.

    I couldn’t resist to translate this post into Spanish. The result is here:

    http://cidam.es/foro/viewtopic.php?t=297

    If translating this is wrong, or I don’t have your permission, please, PLEASE tell me.

    I didn’t want to violate copyright, just make this information and your incredible way to explain things available to Spanish speakers.

    Regards.

  27. Dorfl

    Question about this: Jupiter spins fast and is a lot larger than earth.

    Any evidence Jupiter is slowing down? Earth’s rotation is slowing down (Because of the moons/tidal waves, I think, please enlighten me if wrong). Jupiter obviously has a lot more rotational momentum (not sure whether that’s the same expression in English as in my native language) but still, shouldn’t the big guy slow down over time?

  28. NoAstronomer

    This picture is APOD for May 22nd. Acccording to their description:

    ‘If the motion continues, the new spot will encounter the much larger storm system in August’

    The much larger storm system being the Great Red Spot. Allright!

  29. AlexBenjM

    Dorfl, you’re pretty close, the exact expression is angular momentum. Jupiter’s got so much of it that any tidal friction from its many tiny moons and the distant sun is probably close to negligible. Over extremely long time spans, Jupiter will slow down a little bit but I wonder if we would even notice any difference if we were still around.

    If there’s no friction or any energy interactions, Jupiter will rotate forever. Because it’s got angular momentum doesn’t necessarily mean it will eventually slow down like tops on Earth where there’s plenty of friction.

  30. AlexBenjM

    I just had a thought, have anybody done any modelling or research on what would happen to Jupiter in the distant future as it settles down to an equilibrium? I seem to remember somebody predicting that assuming nothing else significantly disturbs it in the distant future, Jupiter’ll lose all traces of colors and become a bluish color as it reaches a chemical and thermal equilibrium.

    Eventually Jupiter’s energy sources will run out and the sun will go nova, when that occurs, will it be enough to strip Jupiter of all of its atmosphere or will it just sail through and settle down to a quiet state?

  31. DennyMo

    Oh come on, we all know the increased storm activity is due to all greenhouse gases the Jovian people are polluting their atmosphere with. (Well, somebody had to say it. ;) )

  32. Geomancer

    Thanks, andy!

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